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This story is not my own, but one passed down from my grandfather.
These days, when Malaysians drive past Orang Asli (aboriginal Malaysian) settlements in the Sepang region, some distance away from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), they would be surprised at what they saw: Cement houses arranged in neat rows, with well-manicured gardens of colourful flowers. In addition, there are Astro Satellite dishes picking up Astro cable TV, as well as electrical wiring, florescent lights and piped water. They would see Toyota Hilux pick-up trucks, and Toyota UNSER SUVs parked in front of the houses, and Malaysians wonder: What line of work did the Orang Asli engage in to be able to afford such prosperity?
I am not afraid to share: Our main source of wealth is Tongkat Ali. We Orang Asli regularly visit the jungles that we live in close proximity to, and we would harvest the shrub that is the main ingredient of Tongkat Ali. We would sell the Tongkat Ali shrub to pharmaceutical companies who make ‘energy booster pills’, or companies that produce ‘Tongkat Ali’ coffee, both of which are alleged to increase the sexual prowess of men. These Tongkat Ali energy pills, and Tongkat Ali coffee are exported to foreign countries, in particular Malaysia’s wealthy neighbour to the south, Singapore, where apparently, those products are very popular. In fact, there are rumours floating down the grape-vine that a local Condom manufacturer in Malaysia is experimenting with Tongkat Ali condoms. This is because it is said, during the Covid19 lockdown, many newly-wed couples have nothing to do at night but make babies, and so a ‘Tongkat Ali flavoured’ condom would be most popular indeed, amongst Malaysians. Perhaps in neighbouring Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei too.
* * *
But we Orang Asli only came to enjoy this economic prosperity only recently. In the 19th century, when the British first set up Malaysia’s palm oil industry, bringing in palm oil plants from the African nation of Ghana for cultivation, we Orang Asli formed the bulk of the labour force that worked on the palm oil plantations.
Up to the late 20th century, Orang Asli were employed by other enterprises, not owning any of our own entrepreneurial ventures. In fact, it was in the 1960s when my grandfather, a young man in his 30s, worked his way up to a supervisor managing a group of plantation workers in charge of one section of one such palm oil plantation in Sepang. Whilst the pay as a palm oil plantation supervisor was enough to pay the bills, it was not very substantial. My grandfather would share stories with me, that in those days in the 60s and 70s, there would be groups of ‘Orang Minyak’, or oil palm raiders, scurrying about, just before the harvest season. These were in essence, groups of palm oil workers who would invade rival palm oil plantations at night, harvesting oil palms that just ripen, fleeing before dawn approached. These ‘Orang Minyak’ oil palm raiders would then extract the palm oil from the oil palm fruit, and sell it at a discounted price on the black market, to local soap manufacturers, and local biscuit or margarine manufacturers.
Being an ‘Orang Minyak’, or ‘oil palm raider’, formed a profitable side-line for many oil palm workers. But my grandfather informed me he only continued it for a time, before stopping completely all together.
“If it was such a profitable side-line, why did you quit being an ‘Orang Minyak?” I asked.
“Because I encountered the real ‘Orang Minyak’.”
“The real Orang Minyak?”
“Yes. The real Orang Minyak. The demon.” My grandfather nodded grimly.
“What was the encounter like?” I wanted to know. That in itself was a very interesting story, and I made my grandfather retell it many times.
* * *
My grandfather remembers the day as if it was yesterday. It was September 1973, and the birth of my third uncle was imminent. My grandfather needed some extra cash fast, to engage the services of the village mid-wife, and to purchase some health tonics for my grandmother. A rival plantation that was nearby, was nearing its harvest season, so my grandfather rounded up some of the palm oil workers under his charge, rented some baskets and harvesting sickles, loaded everything onto a half-ton lorry he borrowed from a contractor friend, and made a special trip there for an oil palm raid.
“Hey, Abdullah, how are you? You’re here on an oil palm raid as well?” My grandfather greeted warmly, walking up to the leader of another ‘Orang Minyak’ raiding group he was acquainted with. He just arrived at the plantation with his guys at around 11pm at night, and he stumbled upon another group of Orang Minyak palm oil raiders hard at work, harvesting the oil palm in that area.
“Hello Nasri! Haha, you’re here with your guys too! I heard your wife is giving birth soon? Congratulations!” a short Malay man with a bald shiny head, and a large moustache walked up and shook my grandfather’s hand warmly.
“Yeah thanks. I need the cash since my third kid is coming soon. Well, I’ll leave this section to you and your guys, I’ll be going somewhere else. Have a great harvest!” my grandfather thanked Abdullah, and proceeded to another section of the plantation.
According to my grandfather, he and his guys were harvesting the oil palm in that area, when he started hearing screams from across the distance, interjected with the screeching of some strange creature.
“Huh? What’s that?” My grandfather asked, startled. He was drenched in sweat in the humid Malaysian night, his harvesting sickle still clasped tightly in his right hand.
“Sounds like its coming from where Abdullah and his guys are.” Lanoi, my grandfather’s right hand man and ‘lieutenant’ answered, looking towards the direction of the screams. The other workers in the group stopped work too, their attention directed towards the source of the disturbing cacophony.
The trouble is, Orang Minyak palm oil raiders could not carry torches or lamps, for fear of being discovered by the guards and plantation owners they raided. Instead, they relied on the silver light of the full moon, and tended to develop excellent night vision. Still, no matter how good their night vision was, it was no defence against dangers in the night.
“Well, if anything comes this way…” Lanoi stroked his harvesting sickle meaningfully.
“No! We are not murderers! We are just oil palm raiders. Let’s just grab what we can, and get out of here.” My grandfather instructed. Lanoi and the other workers complied. They quickly piled the ratten baskets of palm oil fruit they already harvested on the wooden carts they brought with them, and swiftly made their way back to the half -ton lorry parked along a secure location by the highway. They were about to reach their lorry, when they encountered the real Orang Minyak. The real demon.
* * *
“What was this demon like?” I asked.
“It was…small. Like a child. It was covered in a brown oily substance, that was very dark, and made it almost invisible at night. It was very fierce. The Orang Minak jumped down from the trees, and gave us one hell of a scare.”
“One hell of a scare? How?” I asked.
“As we were pushing our carts laden with baskets of oil palm, we heard some rustling noises from the trees over-head. We looked up, and suddenly, the creature leapt down from a tree onto one of our carts, hissing and screeching. Its eyes were red and large, almost like a snake’s. It had yellow sharp teeth. The belligerence radiating from the creature was terrifying.”
“Did Lanoi try to swipe at it with his sickle?” I asked
“Oh Lanoi did try that. But the creature just leapt nimbly aside, and gave him a gruesome slash on his leg with its claws, screeching horribly as it did so. We took it as our cue to leave. We picked up Lanoi, two of us grabbing him by the armpits, two of us hoisting him up by the legs, and all seven of us ran as fast as we could, hearts thumping in our chests.”
“What happened to Lanoi?”
“We rushed back to our lorry, and gingerly carried him to the back, where three guys stayed to keep him company. The remaining two guys and myself got into the drivers’ cabin, and I drove as fast as I could to the nearest town to seek medical treatment for Lanoi.”
“His injury was terrible?”
“His injury was very severe. We said it was a mountain cat, but…the doctor we brought him to, took one look at the wound and he said, ‘This was not done by a mountain cat.”
“The doctor could tell?”
“Yes. He sent us to a bomoh, or traditional medicine man, living in a secluded area outside of the town. The bomoh took one look at the gash on Lanoi’s thigh, just above the knee, and he asked: ‘What were you looking for in the jungle?’”
“Did you tell him the truth?”
“We had no choice. We then learned that this was not the first case. Many cases like this occurred before. And he told us he was the only one who could cure the wound.”
“Huh? Why?” I was confused.
“Because he said there was poison in the Orang Minyak’s claws no medical doctor could treat. Only he, the bomoh (traditional medicine man), could cure it. My goodness, that special ointment he gave us to treat Lanoi’s leg wound? You would not believe how much it cost. I had to pawn your grandmother’s jewellery in order to afford it.”
“What?! You pawned grandma’s jewellery?” I could not believe what I was hearing.
“I had to pay for a lot of things. The baskets we left behind, the wages of the workers on that failed palm oil raid. Don’t forget I still had to pay for the mid-wife and the health tonics your grandma needed. On top of it all, that special ointment to cure Lanoi’s leg wound wasn’t cheap. But it was worth it. By the third day the wound had swollen to an awful purple and black, and he could hardly walk. Lots of pus oozed from the wound, and Lanoi lay in his sick bed, wheezing, overcome with a terrible fever. After we administered the bomoh’s special ointment, he immediately got better.”
“Did the bomoh tell you off for raiding the oil palm plantation?” I asked.
“No, but he did ask us what we were doing in the jungle. I told him my wife was pregnant, and I needed a little extra cash, so my guys and I were just harvesting some oil palm. The bomoh laughed and told us we were lucky we were only harvesting oil palm.”
“Why would he tell you that?”
“That’s because, the bomoh explained: In earlier days, the area we were in used to be an area where the shrub for Tongkat Ali was harvested by locals, and the Orang Minyak was charged with guarding the Tongkat Ali shrub. If we had taken any of the Tongkat Ali shrub, we would all be dead by now. Oil palms were also guarded by the Orang Minyak these days, but the priority of the oil palm fruit was not as high as the priority of the Tongkat Ali shrub.” My grandfather explained.
* * *
After listening to my grandfather’s story, I was a little shaken. Legend has it, the original Orang Minyak were small demons who prowled remote villages in rural areas, searching for beautiful young women to rape and kill. According to Malay folklore, it was said the bodies of Orang Minyak were covered in slick oil to enable them to slip past areas quietly undetected. It was even rumoured that evil people summoned Orang Minayk to conduct evil deeds on people they bore a grudge against. I had no idea they could be employed by bomohs, or traditional medicine men, to guard palm oil estates. Whenever I looked upon a palm oil plantation, I would notice the lack of security presence, lack of electrical fences, or watch-towers, etc, yet there were zero reports of illegal palm oil harvesting. Thus I could readily believe, something sinister and supernatural was guarding those palm oil plantations.
But, continuing on with my grandfather’s story: After he pawned my grandmother’s jewellery, and lost his ‘side-line’ of oil palm raiding, my grandfather was forced to search for a better job with higher pay. And find a better job he did: My grandfather found a job supervising a group of workers laying the pavement of a section of Orchard Road, Singapore’s world famous shopping precinct. This was in the early to mid-70s.
The pay was much higher in Singapore. With the payment for his work laying the pavement for Orchard road, he managed to save enough, to redeem all my grandmothers jewellery he had pawned, and even managed to buy her a new pair of gold earrings as a treat.
“Getting that job in Singapore was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because after all the pavement was laid, I was forced to take up a job driving a blue taxi in Singapore. It was that taxi gig in the late 70s that enabled me to meet the Singaporean Malay businessman who would eventually become the business partner, who helped us set up our family’s business.” My grandfather informed me proudly.
“He was the one who helped set up the Tong Kat Ali shrub processing business, and connected us with the companies who export Tongkat Ali products overseas, right?”
“Yes that’s right. Our family owes a great debt of gratitude to Encik Faizal. In fact our whole Orang Asli community owes a great debt of gratitude to Encik Faizal. Without him, all of us would still be poorly paid agricultural workers slaving away at palm oil plantations.
“I’m sure he too has profited tremendously from this Tongkat Ali business over the years.” I pointed out objectively.
“True. But without his initial capital injection, his business acumen, and the connections he provided, we would have gotten nowhere. If Encik Faizal, or his descendants ever approaches us to ask for a favour, we must repay the favour. In fact, we should also ‘pay it forward’: if there is a business venture, and a smart person to run it, we should back that venture whole-heartedly, and help new ‘rookies’ off their feet to start a successful business venture too.”
“Yes atok.” I agreed.
* * *
‘When one door closes, another opens.’ Always leverage adversity as a source of strength.’, my grandfather would often remark. Indeed, my grandfather worked exceedingly hard, despite all the setbacks he faced, to establish the foundation of our Tongkat Ali business. These days, my grandfather retired. He was thoroughly enjoying his sunset years gardening and playing with his grand-children, as my father and brothers managed our family business.
As for myself, I went off the beaten track a little: I started a foundation that was the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) arm of my family’s business, and I donate a percentage of our profits to local NGOs and charitable foundations, to provide food, medicine, water and clothes to unfortunate Orang Asli in Malaysia. I perform this service to my fellow Orang Asli, as a form of gratitude, for the good fortune that our family enjoyed thus far, and to have more good fortune flow to us in future.
But going back to the original point, I like to end my grandfather’s story with this piece of advice: Don’t ever let the lack of visible security features on an oil palm plantation fool you. One never really knows who, or what, is guarding those palm oil estates. Especially at night.